The Role of Technology in Classrooms of the Future

William Thirsk, VP of IT & CIO, Marist College
William Thirsk, VP of IT & CIO, Marist College

William Thirsk, VP of IT & CIO, Marist College

Traditionally, higher education was delivered as a supply-side economic model. Colleges and universities create curricula and experiences to recruit students who attend for four years and are taught through traditional means of lecture and study to then develop into well-rounded adults. However, the students of today, a majority being digital natives, have changed that economic model into one that is demand driven. Students are pressuring institutions to meet them where they live-on the interactive devices they persistently use every day.

Students expect to learn ‘at speed’ and assume that their content experiences have been prepared or curated for them. To meet this need, new cognitive tools and Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven systems are beginning to make their way into platforms. Likewise, enhanced digital technologies are constantly being integrated for student and faculty member use. Classrooms are being flipped, course materials are experienced as online mobile games, and digital badges are being earned to create a stack of credentials that at some institutions are considered to be equivalent to a legacy degree.

  As educational technology goes digital, business operations are affected 

In real time, we currently leverage predictive analytics and machine learning at Marist College to increase a student’s likelihood to master the material in a course. Students can now see how they are doing in relation to the aggregate performance of all other students who took the same course. Concurrently, their professors can see their students’ progress on a course dashboard and intervene if necessary. Should the student begin to struggle early, it is detected, and the student can decide to either get additional academic support or change courses without suffering a poor grade or financial penalty. This assists in the student’s on-time degree completion and lessens the likelihood that the degree will cost more than planned.

Cognitive and AI tools are also being leveraged as students engage with the course material they consume. If after reading an excerpt a student fails to pass a quiz on the content just read, supplemental or remedial content can then be served as their next learning unit. The system learns what the students know and what they don’t know. It then selects content that ‘fills in the blanks’ or provides exercises to better define the subject matter for the student. The digital content then continues to be served as the student is better able to answer questions related to the course content.

A great course or learning experience today has many of the elements from courses of yesteryear, but they are built quite differently. It is likely that the best course you’ve ever experienced has content invented and curated by a subject matter expert; is delivered via a platform that allows social and academic interaction; and is animated with the skills of a great story teller. This means that a great course is certainly more expensive to develop, but is accessible to a much larger audience, which will likely yield considerably more revenue so long as the content remains relevant.

Educational technologies that bridge the gap from legacy lectures to digital experience include video capture platforms, which allow faculty members to optimize the in-classroom time they have with their students. A flipped classroom is one where students watch lectures and video presentations as homework and then explore higher-level analysis of content with their professors in person. Similarly, providing students real-world experiences with the use of technology can also increase their successes. Through internships or on-campus employment, educators can leverage the technology that exists in the real world to teach students how to problem solve using technology. This provides students greater success upon graduation. Both flipped and experiential learning are methods that have a very lost cost with a high impact.

Leveraging educational simulations in the virtual classroom space or with virtual humans in the form of life-like mannequins provides real world problem-solving skills to students. Through this they gain the opportunity to think at a higher level and apply the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom in a more practical way. In the case of a virtual simulation, each student chooses the path s/he goes through in the simulation. This allows students to experiment, stack positive experiences, avoid negative feedback, and increase learning. Simulations in the form of life-like biological organisms generally provide instantaneous response of success or failure of a process or experiment. They also allow for multiple attempts to succeed without harm. Both are expensive to develop or use, however, they provide direct feedback to the student, as well as the faculty member on the level of mastery the student has achieved.

Educational approaches such as gamification motivates students to learn and participate using rewards and/or punishments that students earn based on skill or behavior. Generally, the idea is for students to earn or win enough points in the game to receive a reward. Similar to video games, one’s natural desires of socializing, competition, achievement, and self-expression can be met. Students are encouraged to think creatively and plan ahead of time. Gaming has proven to be a successful tool, and students who game often, experience better learning with higher recall and retention rates. Therefore, gaming engages students to solve problems and receive rewards for completing certain tasks.

As educational technology goes digital, business operations are affected. New tools must be acquired, integrated, deployed, and managed to fulfill students’ demands for a more satisfying learning experience. The talent pool must be either recruited or retooled because it will take a team to create a great course, not just one excellent faculty member. Furthermore, academic support teams must adjust to learners who are fully digitally present, and who may have never met a classmate or instructor in person. For a teaching enterprise to succeed in the digital education environment, considerable changes must be leveraged to ensure the systems and people are resourced and prepared to deliver.

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